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The Unfortunate Life of an Undergrad

As University undergraduates we are stuck in a vicious cycle of making ourselves more appealing to potential future employers through extra-curricular activities and career path relatable work experience, and getting the grades for them to even consider our applications in the first place.

How do you get around this tricky situation that thousands of students across the UK are facing? At a time when more jobs are apparently becoming more available, yet the competition for each position is tighter than ever. How do you make yourself stand out?

I have always hated that question: “What makes you unique?”. You seem to come across it for every online job application that you complete. Truth is; I am not unique. I am one of thousands of English and History students across the UK (well, maybe they’re not all joint honours like me), who will most probably find myself falling into the stereotypical pile of finishing with a 2:1 at the end of my studies. Is a 2:1 even an achievement anymore? It’s what most people seem to end up with after their three painful years (okay, maybe two painful years) minimum of study. Therefore meaning that when you are applying for jobs, you need to make yourself stand out from an ever increasing crowd.

“Give us some sympathy, travel subsidy into London and a soggy sandwich just is not enough.”

So how do you do this whilst still keeping on track of your studies? Forget the part time job that is earning you enough to buy Uncle Ben’s rice instead of Tesco Value Basmati: that is no longer a priority. And who needs money anyway?! Employers seem to think we all come from fortunate backgrounds where Mummy and Daddy will pick up the bill for our journey through life. Experience. I recently enquired into graduate jobs within the publishing industry, to be told I would need “at least three different work experience placements or an eight week internship with a local publishing company” to even make it past the ‘chuck your application in the bin’ stage.

But then, undergraduates come to the next inevitable hurdle: how do I find and achieve a career related work experience placement? It’s hard. Again, you are competing against thousands. Moreover, future employers don’t seem to realise that at the end of the teaching year, we are poor. Poorer than a poor undergraduate is for the rest of the year. Give us some sympathy, travel subsidy into London and a soggy sandwich just is not enough.

“I recently enquired into graduate jobs within the publishing industry, to be told I would need “at least three different work experience placements or an eight week internship with a local publishing company” to even make it past the ‘chuck your application in the bin’ stage.”

If you are lucky enough to get a placement over summer, like I have eventually (after months of applying, being rejected, and pleading), fantastic. But is it really all that great? What if it has taught you that your destined career path is not as glamorous and attractive as it had once seemed? Yes, it is a positive in that you “found that out for yourself”, to quote parents who just do not understand our situation, but will you really get those eight weeks back? And would working 9-5’s in retail have actually provided more satisfaction? At least you would have been able to have a semi-leisurely summer and go out with your mates in the evenings, rather than being forced to use the horrifically lame excuse of “Sorry I can’t, I have no money”, at least twice a week.

So what do employers want? The impossible. Before beginning University, I saw a diagram of three things you need at Uni; sleep, studying time, and a social life, the joke being you can only choose two options. I think this ‘joke’ can also be applied here: a serious attempt at a 1st class degree, a social life, or work experience, but pick one instead of two. The sooner employers start realising the ‘joke’ that is the preparation for applying for jobs before the climax of university, the better. Give us more guidance, let us and our talents speak for ourselves more than our clichéd two weeks work experience and 2:1 degree do.

Sophie Morris

Image: John Walker via Flickr

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  • Peter
    23 September 2015 at 08:26
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    Not a bad article, summer placements can be really hard to get onto and it will take away a summer. I think you miss something though, which kinda solves your problem; namely, summer isn’t the only time you can find experience.
    Nottingham has a lot of small, SME and big business who are often really happy to have a student come in. Not only that but the university, either through the careers service or your school, will help offer you placements. This will not be dissimilar to anywhere else in the UK with a university.
    Finding placements whilst at university allows, often a certain amount of hours a week but nothing too stressful, can be worked alongside your studies and yes you may sacrifice a few nights out but you don’t starve because your placement is in YOUR city. Another good time to get in experience is Easter – a month is too long for a holiday so use it up. 2 weeks or even 1 will help you toward the 3 different internships you suggested.
    I also think it’s harsh to say your parents don’t understand, it’s more than likely that they DO and that the wisdom of ‘at least you found it out yourself’ are words that you should listen to. Getting a job is about an independent you being proactive on the search, not getting fed up of the companies who aren’t employing you…because someone must have worked harder.
    So yes, a summer placement can be hard to get on but they aren’t your only option. Use the time (which you have as a BA student, from my experience) you have during the year and other holidays to ramp up your cv with varied or specific work. You’ve got 3 years, if you say you need an 8 week internship… that’s pretty minimal, in the grand scheme of things.

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